In February of this year, the UN released a report calling for an upgrade in the technological tools deployed by peacekeeping forces. More specifically, they advocated an increase in the use of drones in humanitarian efforts, highlighting their ability to monitor and curb outbreaks of violence, and to gather information about the situation within conflict zones. So how could these mini flying robots aid peacekeeping efforts?
Following the US military’s use of drones to carry out attacks in countries like Pakistan, the technology doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, so the UN consistently refers to these “positive” drones as “UAVs” (short for unmanned aerial vehicles), to distance them from the more contentious military devices. But more than just a rebranding of a controversial technology, nowadays drones are being used for a variety of peacekeeping missions, from monitoring the activities of guerrilla groups and outbreaks of violence in Africa, to searching out landmines in the war-scarred landscape of Eastern Europe.
Drones as Peacekeepers in Africa
The use of military drones has been a key (and controversial) feature of the US administration’s counter-terrorism strategy, with US President, Barack Obama, signing off on over 400 drone strikes in the last four years – over five times as many as his predecessor, George W Bush. A number of these devices were destined for Somalia, where the US is currently using them to support the Somali government forces in their battle against the al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab. In fact, one was reported as crashing in the country just over a month ago. It is exactly this kind of operation that has linked drones with warfare in the minds of many. But in December 2013, drones were also used for the very first time in a peacekeeping effort by the United Nations, when they were flown over the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The country has been at war since 1990, with a conflict over minerals raging between government forces, warlords and militia groups that has been described as the deadliest conflict since World War II. Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers in the region, armed rebel groups have thrived in the east of the country. The deployment of drones signals a huge step forward in the UN’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, maybe even one that will be significant enough to speed up the end of the bloody conflict. With their ability to capture both pictures and videos of an area, day and night, and send images to the control rooms in real time, they are able to track the rebel groups that are devastating the country, find out the precise location of their bases, and also monitor misplaced civilians or those people fleeing the conflict. As well as offering them a clear and detailed picture of any trouble on the ground, drones can also be used to patrol the nation’s porous borders with Rwanda, a country which has been accused of sending fighters and weapons to the Congolese rebels.
One rebel group, the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), has its base deep in the jungle in the east of the country. Entering the region would take months, and put thousands of troops in danger, but by using drones, the rebel groups’ movement can be watched and their routes and behaviour tracked without putting any human lives at risk. And unlike helicopters, the UAVs can fly low over areas without being seen or heard, and hover for a long period of time in order to gather information about a location, even in the middle of the night. If a helicopter were to do the same, the aircraft, and its crew, would run the risk of being shot down.
Detecting Landmines in Bosnia and Herzegovina
According to statistics from the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, landmines still kill and maim thousands of people every year, throughout the world. The victims are usually civilians and a huge 42 percent of them are children, often in countries emerging from war where landmines remain after the conflict is over. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, both sides laid landmines, meaning that now, over 20 years later, an estimated 120,000 mines still lie under the country’s soil.
Landmine removal operations help people to live a normal life, free from fear, but with methods such as robotics, metal detectors, ground vehicles or even specially-trained sniffer dogs, progress can be very slow, not to mention extremely dangerous for those involved. Drones were indispensable last year when floods swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only leaving over a million people homeless, but also bringing wartime landmines to the surface and sweeping them to unexpected locations. In the wake of the disaster, rescue teams used drones to search for survivors and, crucially, pinpoint the new location of the mines.
Drones were able to deliver damage reports, and take aerial photos of the disaster area which rescue teams used to create 3D maps, and using geo-statistical modelling, try and determine how far the minefields had shifted. Entering the zone directly would have been too dangerous as it was impossible for people to move around safely: mines were reportedly found up to 23 kilometres away from their original location. Thanks to the drones, assistance could be provided quickly and efficiently to the victims of the disaster, as they could scout out inaccessible terrain and flooded areas that were too hazardous to be entered by people on the ground. For more information on the drones’ work, and their huge humanitarian achievements in the country last year, check out the news report below:
Using drones to monitor conflict zones and detect mines allows peacekeepers to better inform themselves about a situation before developing a plan of response, minimising and, in some cases, eliminating the need to put people on the ground and potentially in harm’s way.
From the bottom of the ocean to the outer reaches of the galaxy – the possibilities offered by drones and satellites are practically unlimited. Unmanned aerial vehicles are no longer only used in war zones. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, they are also valuable aids in the fight against pollution and social injustice. They can expose polluters and even locate people buried under rubble. In our RESET Special ‘Drones and Satellites for Good‘, we will introduce projects that use satellites and drones towards sustainable development.